When Did Flying Become So Boring?


Flying is the wind, the turbulence, the smell of exhaust, and the roar of an engine; it’s wet cloud on your cheek and sweat under your helmet.
–Richard Bach, 1960

The pilot wore polyester pants. The picture is from 1971, an era when pilots no longer needed helmets and boots and goggles to fly. Wood-and-fabric aircraft had given way to closed cockpits. The woman’s hairdo wouldn’t be mussed.

The purpose of general aviation was never to get from Point A to Point B, but to be in the air between Point A and Point B.


Pilots used the term “$100 hamburger” to justify a flyout to a passenger. The pretext was that an airport destination served such good hamburgers that it was worth a $100 flight to get there. The trip would then be so exhilarating that the pilot could serve up a bowl of pre-moistened dog chow and the passenger wouldn’t even notice.

We don’t hear the term “$100 hamburger” bandied about anymore, because these days it’s more like a $1000 hamburger. And flying has become so unspectacular that there really better be a $100 hamburger at the end of the runway.


With each new generation of expanding color displays, landscape is squeezed from the pilot’s field of vision until the windscreen has become a sliver. It is 2015 and VOR navigation systems are being decommissioned. Not because pilots can navigate by dead reckoning. The FAA is retiring VORs because today’s pilots fly by following GPS instructions. You can get the same thrill lining up ILS needles in a flight simulator.

What would Jonathan Livingston Seagull say about Cirrus’s modern glass cockpits? Pilots who train in new aircraft not only have never heard the wind, but also have never seen a tumbling heading indicator or airspeed stuck at 0.

Now flying is not about getting from Point A to Point B nor the wind in the wires. General aviation in modern lightcraft is about raising a high-altitude middle finger to those who can’t afford it.

No wonder people think flying is boring. It is.

See Also:
Richard Bach, I’ve Never Heard the Wind, Flying Magazine, Feb 1960.

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 9.51.38 PM



Eleven years ago, I crash-landed a Cessna in Las Vegas after the control tower issued instructions for a high-speed landing that I didn’t have the experience to execute.

In the aftermath, I underwent an interrogation and checkride with an FAA Safety Inspector who decided not to revoke my license. I was a competent pilot, he decided, albeit a stupid one.

In parting, he suggested that I reinstate a standard ICAO phrase in my vocabulary: Unable.

Unable is the most underused word in aviation. It means the air traffic controller just told you to do something, and you can’t do it. No reason needed.

As humans, pilots are prideful beings. Many learned to fly in the service. The tower could ask for a double barrel roll on short final and the pilot response would undoubtedly be Wilco.

Remember when JFK Jr. crashed his plane off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard by flying into low-visibility conditions? Nah, ATC didn’t tell him to do that. He had two women in the plane with him. I imagine it must be difficult to say Unable to two women, one of whom is your wife.


Pilots have a hard enough time citing unable when facing down a life-or-death situation. It’s even harder on the surly bonds of earth, where death happens slowly. The employer who asks you to work weekends does not suffer the consequences of your failed marriage. The investor who sends you to Vegas isn’t the one gambling with the life of his company. Unable.

A control tower can’t see wake turbulence, icing conditions, or mechanical distress. According to NTSB investigators, no matter how ridiculous a tower directive, the cause of accident always ultimately comes down to pilot error — for being unwilling to say Unable.

No Air Traffic Controller has ever died from pilot error.

See Also:
Just Say “Unable” –AOPA